The number of refugees that have made the deadly crossing so far this year is nearly 14 times the number that crossed over the same time period last year – 135,000, or over 2,000 people per day. The cold winter months and violent waves on the Mediterranean have not stopped their exodus from war and occupation; neither have barbed wire border fences, police tear gas and clubs, nor the inhuman conditions in European refugee camps.
Refugees are fleeing Africa and the Middle East for Europe at a huge rate because they see no end to the bombings, violence and devastation leveled on their countries by the U.S. government and their allies, especially concentrated over the last 15 years. For millions of people in the region, the year 2001, and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was the first attack of the new era of war and occupation, a bloody series of imperialist invasions, wars and occupations that continues until today.
War in Syria and Beyond
Syrians make up the largest group of refugees landing on the shores of Greece and Italy. This is no surprise given that in Syria today, over half of the population has been displaced, either inside the country or pushed beyond its borders, often times more then once (United National Refugee Agency - UNHCR). Over 4.5 million people have been forced to leave Syria, and everything that they have ever known, as entire cities and hundreds of thousands of years of civilization are turned to dust.
The U.S. government and their allies first began backing so-called moderate rebels in Syria in 2011, fomenting a fierce civil war meant to destabilize the country and force the exit of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. In 2014, the United States and their allied regimes, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates began bombing Syria, justifying their attacks with the claim that they are fighting the terrorist group Daesh (ISIS/ISIL), a terrible force that was created by imperialist forces and intervention in Iraq and Syria. Today, the United Kingdom, Canada, France and Turkey have joined in the bombing of Syria. In February, 2016 the United States opened up its second air base in the Kurdish area of Syria, a clear sign that they are not planning on leaving Syria anytime soon.
Really, the experience of people in Syria and the conditions that have pushed them away from their homes are the same as those that are faced by people from all over Africa and the Middle East, from Iraq and Afghanistan to Libya and Somalia. Here are just a few examples of the devastation caused by imperialist war machine.
- Currently over 6.6 million Iraqi people are in immediate need of emergency assistance, either food, water, or sanitation (U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs)
- In the Yemen, 14.4 million people are food insecure (Food and Agriculture Organization – FAO) after one year of a brutal U.S.-backed Saudi Arabian bombing campaign
- 2015 was the deadliest year for civilians in Afghanistan since 2009
- In February 2016 the United States dropped bombs on Libya, in the name of “fighting Daesh.” These bombs were dropped on a country still submerged in chaos after the U.S./Canada/France and NATO bombed Libya to rubble in 2011.
With the above conditions facing people in the Middle East and Africa, it is no question why refugees are fleeing for Europe and risking everything that they have in order to find a safe place to be.
The Devastating Reality for Refugee Women and Children
Unfortunately, even for those refugees that survive the bitter cold on the Mediterranean crossing, their struggle for this safe space to be, and their struggle for dignity, is far from over. This is especially true for women and children refugees.
The European Union police agency, Europol, announced at the end of January 2016 that 10,000 refugee children that registered upon entering Europe had “disappeared.” Although they reported that some that were missing had most likely ended up in with family members, they also warned that many of them were vulnerable to human trafficking.
For women refugees, not only do they face the responsibility of caring for children and trying to keep the family together through the impossible journey, they also face additional harassment and targeting along the way. Amnesty International conducted a study with women refugees, finding that most had “experienced physical abuse and financial exploitation, being groped or pressured to have sex by smugglers, security staff or other refugees.”
Where is the human response to this inhuman situation? Over the last year the refugee crisis in Europe has become impossible for European governments to ignore. After hundreds of people began dying while crossing the Mediterranean last Spring, Europe held its first Summit in order to discuss the refugee crisis. Since then, they have continued to hold many summits and meetings of all kinds, however, to date all decisions that have been made are coming up short and coming too late to have any impact on the refugee crisis today.
Even the latest agreements proposed regarding the re-settlement of refugees are a far-cry from the 1.3 million that arrived in 2015 alone. To date, the European Union, outside of Germany, has committed to re-settling only 160,000 refugees. France, for example, has committed to taking in a mere 30,000.
European Government Response Deepens the Human Catastrophe
Given this human tragedy, the question really is how are Western and European governments responding and what is being done to bring people fleeing wars and occupations simple human dignity?
Let us start with the European response to refugees that have already arrived in Europe over the last year. With 1.3 million refugees arriving in Europe in 2015, the biggest responsibility of European governments should have been finding dignified places for people to live as they wait to go through the various processes that are required for them to claim refugee status in Europe. The European response to this need has been devastatingly slow. During the summer months this meant that people were left out in the sun, often without food or water except for what was brought to them by volunteers or NGO’s. Over the winter, this has meant waiting in the cold and rain, or being cramped into inadequate shelters.
Because of the lack of adequate housing and limitations to travel and movement, refugees have also been forced into building their own places to live. This includes camps along the route from France into the U.K., such as those in Dunkirk and Calais, France. Conditions in these camps, already overcrowded and lacking enough infrastructure to support a dignified life, have worsened over the winter months. As one young Kurdish refugee said to Vice News, “Being killed by the Islamic state would have been better than this; they say these are the lands of human rights, but if that were true they wouldn’t keep us here. They would take us somewhere better, but it didn’t turn out that way, there’s no progress here. ”
This young girl lives with her family in a camp in Dunkirk, France. This camp has seen its population swell to 3,000 from 600 in only a few months, still the camp only has two taps with running water.
The situation in the Calais camp, also known as “the Jungle” is even worse, as the government of France has stepped in to destroy large parts of the camp. An estimated 5-6,000 refugees were living in the camp in Calais, attempting to enter into the U.K., when French authorities began to bulldoze the Southern part of the camp, using tear gas and water cannons against refugees trying to protect what little they had. Local non-governmental groups and charities estimated that up to 3,000 people were displaced when this part of the camp was leveled.
In place of the destroyed parts of the camp, the French government provided a camp of large shipping containers outfitted for people to live in. Although this may seem like a reasonable solution to the horrible conditions for people living in the Jungle, these containers are not really a solution at all. First of all, they only accommodate 1,500 people, or about half of those that were displaced. Secondly, the containers are fenced off in a way that appears to much of the refugees to be more like a prison then a home. Most of them are reluctant to give up what little freedom of movement that they have in exchange for an uncertain future in a camp provided by the French government.
Barbed Wire is No Solution!
Another human responsibility of European governments is to ensure the ability of refugees to travel from the countries where they have landed to the countries that have offered them a permanent place to stay. Basically it does not matter how many refugees each European country has offered to take if refugees are not able to move to their destination. Basic human decency also requires that they should be able to do this without being treated like criminals or animals. Sadly, this has not been the case. Especially over the last few months borders have been closing in Europe and more and more barbed wire fences have been erected.
The most recent border closure has been on the border between Macedonia and Greece. As borders began to close along one of the routes from Greece to Germany, known as the “Balkan Route,” Macedonia finally decided that it too would close down its border. They quickly erected a double razor wire fence, and are now allowing as little as 0-150 refugees through a day, Syrian and Iraqi refugees only. As of March 5, 2016 there were approximately 12,000 refugees stranded in Greece, not being able to cross into Macedonia, and not also having anywhere else to go to in Greece. Additional support from the European Union for Greece to handle this latest crisis has not been provided, with 30,000 refugees expected to be trapped in Greece by the end of March if this border remains closed.
In order to deal with the refugees entering Europe, there are also plans in place to begin to turn back refugees from areas in the Middle East considered to be “safe.” These places include all of the country of Afghanistan, and the cities of Baghdad, Iraq and Damascus, Syria. As well, there are the dozens of countries from which refugees are classified by European governments as economic migrants and deported home. According to the Independent Newspaper, the British Home Office has even begun to charter flights from Afghans from Britain to Kabul, this while Afghanistan has just had the deadliest year for civilians since 2009.
This article would also be lacking if I did not mention the disgraceful response of the U.S. government to the refugee crisis. The U.S. government is the government most responsible for destroying the lives of millions and millions of people in the Middle East and Africa. The White House has only committed to taking in 10,000 Syrian refugees by the end of this year. 10,000? That’s not even one refugee for every bomb dropped by the U.S. on the people of Syria in the last 15 months (the U.S. Air Force reported dropping 20,000 bombs and missiles in Syria alone).
What About Canada?
Although the refugee crisis has had the most immediate impact on Europe, the government of Canada, as one of the governments responsible for the devastation that has created this crisis, also has the responsibility to provide a dignified life for refugees from Africa and the Middle East.
As of March 1, 2016, 25,000 Syrian refugees arrived in Canada, representing a mix of both government and privately-sponsored refugees. Unlike what the new Trudeau government would like the people of Canada to believe, this number of refugees is not only not what the Liberal government promised (25,000 government sponsored refugees by the end of 2015), it is also a long way from the number of refugees, Syrian and otherwise, that a rich imperialist country like Canada has the responsibility to accept.
As the refugee crisis was unfolding in 2015, Fire This Time called on the government of Canada to immediately accept 50,000 Syrian refugees and grant them full legal and human rights in Canada. This is still possible. We also restate our demand that the government of Canada accept another 150,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2016.
Canada has also not taken any responsibility for non-Syrian refugees, or offered non-Syrian refugees the same human response. For example, Syrian refugees are not obligated to re-pay the government of Canada for their travel costs, non-Syrian refugees are. We demand that the same full legal and political rights be extended to all refugees, none of whom should owe the government of Canada for their travel to safety.
Refugees Face Racism and Islamophobia
“I thought Europe would offer me a comfortable life, but I only found hostility and pain.” Mohammed Asif, refugee from Afghanistan
Even for the refugees that are able to stay in a Europe, or Canada, or the U.S., for that matter, life continues to be difficult. The words of Mohammed are not uncommon to read. Over the last few months, refugees have been increasingly reporting on the open hatred, racism and Islamophobia that they face as they travel through Europe. This atmosphere is the result of the polarization of society in Europe around the refugee crisis, polarization perpetuated by governments, the mass media and far-right political parties in Europe.
Europe has a population of 500 million people, even if 2 million refugees from the Middle East and Africa were to enter Europe, this would represent a population increase of 0.4% over one year. This is not even close to an impossible number for industrialized countries in Europe to absorb, considering a small and developing country like Lebanon has accepted 1.5 million Syrian refugees.
The refugee crisis is being used to divide European society at a time when more unity between poor and oppressed people is needed in order to face increasing cuts to social services and other government attacks.
Refugees in Canada are also facing racism and Islamophobia. Just recently, a school in Calgary was found with graffiti declaring “Syrians are animals” and “real Canadians hate Syrians” as well as “burn all mosques.” Here in Vancouver, a Syrian family was spat on while leaving a mosque in January.
Open the Borders!
As European leaders propose more and more to “control the borders,” peace-loving people around the world are demanding to open the borders! No matter the fences, the road blocks, riot police or the perilous conditions, humanity will always find a place to be safe in the face of certain death. There do not need to be any more needless deaths, over 1.5 million people have already lost their lives in Iraq alone. If refugees were given safe passage from the Middle East and Africa to Europe, thousands of lives would be saved. If people were given dignified housing and transportation along the way, then they wouldn’t be forced to relive the abuses they suffered as U.S. soldiers broke down their doors in the middle of the night. The refugee crisis doesn’t have to be a crisis for humanity.
End Wars and Occupations!
“The tents are better, but the conditions in our hearts is worse…My dream is to move back to Syria...my house has been destroyed, let them go back and live in a tent, what is important is that we are in our country. It has been 5 years, what should we do?” Khaldea Salim, Syrian Refugee living in Lebanon.
With these words Khaldea, Syrian mother and refugee in Lebanon has offered the world her solution to the refugee crisis. She wants to return home to a Syria free of war and chaos and the permanent instability that the U.S. government and their allies are imposing on people in the Middle East and Africa.
Opening the borders to all refugees is a way to alleviate the human suffering of the refugee crisis today; ending imperialist wars and occupations is the only way to put an end to the refugee crisis for once and for all.
Open the Borders Now!
No to Islamophobia! No to Racism!
End Imperialist Wars and Occupations!
Follow Alison Bodine on Twitter: @Alisoncolette
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